14 March 2014

BOOK: The Roots of Evil

The Roots of Evil was a tough read for me, I'll be honest. You may have noticed me say (very subtly, of course) a few times before that I'm not a natural reader, and whilst that's still true, I was slow even by my standards with this. To give you some perspective, it took me the same amount of time to get through these 55 pages as it did to complete the 704-page The Writer's Tale: The Final Chapter by Russell Tremendous Davies and Benjamin Cook.

That's not to say I didn't enjoy this though; there's plenty to like. The premise is less convoluted than the previous two installments, probably in its favour. The Doctor and Leela arrive on a tree the size of planet - the Heligan Structure - and he is immediately captured and is told he will be punished for his sins against the people of the Heligan, who are just a bunch of humans. This definitely carries shades of The Face of Evil; there's the 'primitive' tribe, the statue of the Doctor, the consequences of his meddling, and anti-bodies of the world. In fact, it feels like Reeve watched Face quite some years ago and then read the TARDIS wiki page when writing this. He captures the spirit of it quite well, but some of the details don't really ring true, particularly his interpretation of Leela.

As soon as they arrive, the Doctor rescues Ven, a fifteen-year-old boy, from falling into the tree's 'digestion chamber'. This is quite nicely done, but there's the odd bit of the Doctor just kind of leaving him as soon as he's given him his scarf. It feels a bit wrong, as the Fourth Doctor I know would make sure he was alright before wandering off. This is when the travellers are apprehended. There are two main factions in this story, again mirroring Leela's debut story. One is led by the Justiciar (the mother of Ven), and the other by Chairman Ratisbon. The former believes that the Doctor should be tried fairly, and the latter thinks he should just be condemned to punishment immediately. It's only quite late on into the story that we discover what it is that the Doctor's actually done.

Although this keeps an air of mystery, it does feel a bit over-stretched, similarly the hate of the colony. I understand that in a limited word count, you have to establish standpoints quite quickly but I don't think the way to do this was by giving the citizens such outlandish names. For example, there's Vengeance-Will-Be-Ours-When-The-Doctor-Dies-A-Thousand-Deaths (shortened to Ven), Agony-Without-End-Shall-Be-The-Doctor's-Punishment (Aggie) and Cut-Out-The-Doctor's-Living-Heart-While-It-Still-Beats to name just three. Not only is this not to my tastes, but I don't think it's entirely authentic of the era this is supposed to herald from. True, they did try some pretty outlandish things in Series 15 (*cough* Underworld  *cough*), but I think this is too far. 

Anyway, so the tree sends out its own warriors to try and kill the Doctor. The purpose behind this isn't immediately obvious, but it is satisfactorily explained later. These are blind plant-creatures that react only to sound, handily enough for Leela and her resistance party. They manage to evade a few by remaining silent. The Doctor decides to descend to the 'heartcore', where the intelligence of the tree lives. When he arrives there, he finds the captain of the original ship that crashed into the Heligan 900 years earlier embedded in the wood. Director Sprawn has become one with the Heligan, and hence it was him that sent the warriors to kill the Doctor. This is the stage in the book where I felt the authenticity reached its peak. At the heart of the tree, the Time Lord discovers gleaming spaceship equipment from when it crashed - a scene right out of The Face of Evil or Underworld. In fact, the section of Roots spent underground almost felt like a deleted scene from the latter 'classic' serial. 

And so the plot behind it all is revealed. The Eleventh Doctor (it is him that the aforementioned statue is of) visited the planet the Heligan orbits, and helped the native Thara to expel the human colonists after they tried to terraform it in a way that would wipe them out. The Humans seem to have done alright really; they've got a nice little system in place, and manage to fashion whole cities from the wood. Apart from Sprawn's influence, the tree seems nicely benevolent too. For these reasons it's puzzling why Sprawn (and hence the many generations that have followed him) holds such a grudge. It's odd that the central plot is such a clever idea (humans are the enemy is not done often enough for my liking) but has so little meaning behind it. Perhaps it's just the way Reeve tells it (I'm afraid he's another author whose style I'm not "mad keen" on), but this kind of spoilt the whole thing for me.

There are other little touches that feel wrong. Leela calls K9 'the little metal one' - something she never did onscreen, and feels completely out of character. This is supposed to be set after The Sun Makers, and at no point before or after this story did she refer to him by anything other than his name. The close affection between the pair isn't very accurately portrayed either, which is a shame as it could yield some lovely character moments instead of some of the more tiresome 'kill him'/'don't kill him' arguments. It is mentioned at the beginning that he will take about two hours to charge, so all the way through I was expecting him to turn up, and cut the TARDIS out of its entanglement or whatever, but no. Another missed opportunity in my opinion.

It really feels like to forge a medley of Leela's time on the show whilst incorporating his own elements, but it comes off rather half-hearted. As a mash of Series 15, it works effectively by combining the plots of most of the stories. There's the isolation of Horror of Fang Rock, the mad future colonists of The Invisible Enemy, the ancient enemy of Image of the Fendahl, the rebellious factions of The Sun Makers, the underground weirdness of Underworld and the time manipulation of The Invasion of Time, but it feels like Reeve has read wikipedia and made a checklist rather than capturing the essence of the series at the time. The parallels with '70s Who continue to the title, clearly a play on The Face of Evil, but I think a closer alteration would have been more effective - The Roots of Death. It quite clearly just removes one letter from an existing title and more accurately describes the story. The Roots aren't evil, and the 'origins of evil' angle doesn't quite work either.

I started this short story at quite a strong pace, completing a few chapters. However, for a few weeks it lay on a shelf, staring at me every time I passed it. Eventually I decided that I'd have to read it all from the beginning rather than just finishing it, and so that's what I did. I put aside an hour at the beginning of my weekend to read it from start to end and I did. It was still tough. Reeve's style of prose doesn't lend itself to unnatural readers like me. It's quite complex and winding. I'm sure it works for many people, but there's no point me not conveying my opinion in this review. 

In summary then, The Roots of Evil is a bit disappointing. Maybe it's because I've just come off the back of 44 episodes of Tom Baker and Louise Jameson, but the portrayals of the Doctor and Leela were particularly disappointing. All the character tics were there, but I felt the speech patterns weren't reminiscent. As this story was supposed to celebrate the Fourth Doctor's era for the fiftieth anniversary (heard of it?), it did its primary job quite well and I'm delighted that Reeve chose Jameson's character to accompany the Doctor. It is sad though that more wasn't made of this. While it's enjoyable enough, with plenty of merits, there's nothing standout about it. It's not bad, but it's not good either. It was relatively average, and I feel a little disheartened that Reeve may have been enlisted just to sell more copies rather than because he could offer a solid Fourth Doctor story. I mean, it's far from poor, but it's also pretty underwhelming. Sorry, Mr Reeve, if you're reading, but this doesn't encourage me to look out any more of your work. Thank you for trying though, as this was still a bit above average.

In a Nutshell: The Vague of Evil.

You can buy The Roots of Evil as an eBook here, or as part of the 11 Doctors, 11 Stories collection here.

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